Careful is not a word in the official governmental vocabulary. Procedural is. I worked as a Practicing Anthropologist for about twenty years. I worked for municipalities, semi-governmental organizations, federal and state governments, and contractual work. Doing something carefully and observing the correct procedure is tough. But, I am not among those who would suggest that the two could not possibly coexist.

The reason why I feel that coexistence is possible is because of a little phrase I learned from a senior bureaucrat early in my career. I know that you’ve heard it: “It’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.”

Tony Babcock, was a second-generation contracting officer. To walk into his office was to walk into a library of the Code of Federal Regulations ( CFR). Each book inscribed duly with his name. And an acknowledgment that he promised to enforce the code to the best of his abilities. I knew this because a small, very small shelf of similar volumes rested behind my desk. Like my office, his office featured a framed copy of the government code of ethics.

Our first meeting did not go well. I had failed to distinguish between the two words should and shall in a document. I received a lecture detailing the travails that could follow on such a mistake. It was not pleasant.

In subsequent meetings, I learned that no matter how carefully I prepared, if I did not have my procedural ducks in a row, I couldn’t spend a penny of the federal money in my budget. I also learned that Parental Legislation in a bureau, department, or agency was a guide to what could and could not get done legally. 

Eventually, I learned that the key to unlocking the nearly endless information available from Tony was to ask the correct question. He would sit behind his deck in a very non-issue rocking chair, smile, and tell me that I was not asking the right question. Not being too dumb, I did eventually master the art of asking good questions. It was a pleasure to see him smile and open the flood gates to two generations of knowledge.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that it was better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission. Of course, the key to successfully manipulating that process was to have prepared the groundwork with the proper shoulds and shall, references to CFR, and Parental Legislation. All this showed that your intent ( pay attention now!) had been correct.

In recent years all of us have had reason to fear the direction taken by our governments. I find myself a bit reassured, however, that in an office far away, some snotty Schedule C political appointee is discussing shoulds and shall, Parental Legislation and CFR.

Thank you! I salute all the Tony Babcocks of the world.